I didn’t get much sleep that night. Not after a horrific crime scene involving someone you knew. The image of Zoe Burke’s mutilated body wouldn’t leave my thoughts alone. Stab wounds. Bruises. Arms bound behind her back and ankles tied together. The immense suffering. I basically tossed and turned the whole night seeing every hour on the clock.
Giving up a little before five AM, I headed down from the house to my office in the converted garage. It was a very cool morning even for October. My breath was visible. It was perfectly still out. No wind. No rustling trees. No sounds of cars or nature. Completely dark. The world hadn’t woken up yet.
I unlocked the office and turned up the heat in the building. The furnace kicked in from the utility closet giving some sense of life around me. I turned on all of the lights breaking the darkness. A very strong pot of coffee was started knowing it was going to be necessary to make it through the day. Grabbing a cup before the pot had completely finished, I headed into my office in the back.
There was no way any real work was going to be completed today. No doubt about it. I wasn’t even going to try. The only reason why I was out here was to get the notebook for Zoe Burke’s case. She was a client from about a year ago and every case got their own notebook. No exceptions. They were kept in one of the filing cabinets in the upstairs office. Out of the way from prying eyes and safe with all of the expensive equipment. A few of the older ones had been boxed up and moved into storage in the basement of the house but they were still accessible.
I got the old notebook and read through the whole register refreshing my memory of the case. It was pretty straightforward. Nothing in my notes or observations surprised me. I remembered the details well. Still, I read it again. All of it just to ensure I didn’t miss anything.
Dawn had just started to break outside with the sky beginning to glow faintly. This time of year sunrise was still a few hours away. I grabbed the notebook, turned off all of the lights and headed back up to the house. Bruno asked last night to meet the first thing in the morning so we could talk about what I knew of the victim.
After a long hot shower and a few more cups of coffee, I headed down to the coroner’s office. Bruno was at the morgue, so I agreed to conveniently meet there. It was located in the northern part of the city right next to a local university medical complex and by the world famous zoo. Since I was there on official business, I was able to park in their lot right out front. The building was a nondescript boring brick building that seemed to be everywhere in this city. Encompassed by mature trees, it almost disappeared into the surroundings.
I retrieved my messenger bag out of the back and headed in. Bruno was waiting in the main lobby for me. He was making notes while reading some report. I had seen people who had been up for two straight days who looked more refreshed. He was wearing different clothes from the night before but it was doubtful he was able to get much sleep. A murder like Zoe’s is a very high profile incident and the pressure to make progress quickly comes from every direction.
We skipped the normal pleasantry greetings and simply nodded to each other instead. He grabbed his things and walked over to an empty conference room immediately off the main lobby.
“Thanks for meeting me here,” he said. “I am waiting for them to finish their initial assessment and wanted to read the report here in case I had any questions.”
“First things first.” I set my bag down and pulled out a thermos of coffee I had made just before leaving the house and handed it over to him. “Fresh, hot, and really strong. Figured you could use it.”
Bruno smiled. He poured himself a large amount using one of the Styrofoam cups that were stacked on the back table, smelling it longingly with his eyes closed for a few seconds. “Perfect. I definitely need this. So tell me what you can about the victim.”
I sat down at the conference room table across from him and got out the notebook setting it down in front of me. “I didn’t really know Zoe well at all. As I said last night, she was a client about a year ago. Lasted for about a week and a half. She had recently broken up with her ex-boyfriend and it got ugly. Had to get a restraining order but was convinced he was still stalking her. Things in her bedroom seeming to be out of place, a flat tire while at work. She wanted proof. Photos of him breaking the restraining order.
“I watched her place for a couple of nights. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I ended up following the ex. Steven Davis. First name with a ‘v’. I guess both first and last have one. Anyway. I ended up following him for a week. Once again, absolutely nothing. He never went anywhere near her during the times I followed him. With nothing, she wanted to drop it.
“I liked her. She was nice. Paid me right away. No questions or remorse with the fact I didn’t get any proof. More relieved she didn’t have to worry. I called her a few times in the weeks after to check up on her. She said everything was just fine. No problems at all and thanked me for putting her mind at ease. There is nothing more. I haven’t talked to her since.”
I slid the notebook over to Bruno. “All of my notes are in there. I read through it a few times this morning before heading down. I don’t think anything in there will be helpful to you or your investigation but I wanted to make sure you had it.”
“The ex-boyfriend is a good lead. We had already found out about him from the restraining order but it’s good to have this information. Hiring someone to follow him drives home the fact she was scared. I can use that information when I talk to him. Going to visit him at his work later today. Anything else you can think of?”
“Not really,” I said. I had been thinking all morning if there was anything relevant I might know. “As I said, it was just a case from a few years ago. She was nice and I liked her name. Zoe. It was my mom’s middle name.”
Bruno looked at me, surprised. “I didn’t know that. If I did, I definitely forgot.”
“Photographing her body was rough last night,” I confessed. “It was hard enough seeing someone in that condition when you don’t know them. I am glad I found out I knew her afterward or I don’t think I could have taken pictures. Violent death still haunts me. I couldn’t get it out of my head like before. Knowing her was the key to not being able to forget. I am not sure how you do it.”
“Don’t humor yourself. I remember them all. Every single homicide, suicide, and accident victim. They are all still up here.” He was pointing at his temple. “I will never forget them but I have learned to deal with it. Compartmentalized it, if you will, so I can make it through the day and nights. You don’t last long in my line of work if you can’t deal with the stress and memories. Most everyone turns to alcohol, myself included. There is a reason why I have whiskey every night. It helps calm the nerves.”
We sat there in the peace and quiet for a few minutes, neither of us wanting to talk. I finally broke the silence. “On a different subject, were you able to get me any information on Sarah Jacobs?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Was a bit busy yesterday with everything going on and then, to be honest, I just forgot. I was able to do a quick check.” He got out his notebook and searched for what he was looking for. “Same thing on my end. Not much to tell. Pretty much a model citizen. Nothing more than a traffic ticket for speeding when she was seventeen. No arrests, convictions, or anything similar. No red flags to tell you about.”
“Do you know anything about a brother?” I asked?
“I didn’t look for any information on relatives, so no. Why?”
“It’s nothing. Just wanted to confirm something. No big deal.”
“What kind of case is this, Alex? If you are going to use me for information, I do have a right to know.”
“Just another standard case requiring photographic evidence. The client wants pictures of his fiancée.” Bruno was right but his request put me into a little bit of a hard spot. He wasn’t a fan of me working missing person cases like this, particularly when the police had not been called. I justified the complete lack of any detailed information because this wasn’t really a missing person case, but someone only wanting proof someone was alive and well. It was a fine line but I was sticking to it.
Bruno was looking at me knowing there was more to it than I was leading on. Years of interviewing people of interest had made his internal lie detector razor sharp. It’s the same reason why I could never get away with anything with my dad growing up.
We were interrupted by a knock. One of the technicians opened the door and talked to Bruno. “Here you are. The coroner is ready for you with her initial findings. She is waiting in autopsy room number four.” They closed the door and left.
“I have to go to talk with her,” Bruno said. “Thanks for coming down and bringing the notebook. I have no idea when I will be able to get it back to you, if ever.” He stood up to leave grabbing all of his stuff as well and the notebook and headed for the door.
“Glad I could help. I can’t think of a reason why I would need it so take your time.”
Bruno stopped, reached back for the thermos and then walked out of the conference room, leaving the door open. I sat there a few minutes longer thinking before heading home. This whole situation had got me reflecting on my past history. I never stopped thinking about that day, even many years later. I had seen plenty of dead bodies in the past. It’s a part of my job for the police department.
What I didn’t tell Bruno is Zoe reminded me of Hannah, my fiancée who was killed.